Eastside High School freshman Amir Helmy was just looking for a 7th grade science fair project idea in the fall of 2012.
A family friend and neurologist was talking about the expensive and complicated equipment epilepsy patients had to rely on to monitor their seizures when Helmy came up with the idea for his first award-winning smartphone app.
“I didn’t have a science fair idea yet, and I know that our phones have the same capabilities as the sensors that he was talking about,” said Helmy, 13. “I thought, ‘Why not just use an everyday device to solve a big problem?’”
Helmy was familiar with the basics of programming from building Lego robots growing up and attending NASA camp. With the help of his father, an associate professor in the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Department at UF, Helmy began to create the software Seizario, which uses the accelerometer inside of a smartphone to monitor human movement.
Seizario can differentiate between normal movements and those related to seizures and send alert to emergency contacts or caregivers. Seizario can also detect falls, allowing it to be useful for the elderly or other patients who are prone to falling and injuring themselves.
“He told me that he wanted to do something that no one else has done before,” said Helmy’s father, Ahmed. “We didn’t know if it was going to succeed or not.”
The two began to use the app to look for patterns in everyday movement that could be analyzed. After consulting with neurologists to test the validity of the app and fine-tuning the programming, Seizario became a success. The app took Amir to the regional and state science fair competitions, in which he won first place.
The duo then created a second app, HeartEra, for the 8th grade science fair the following year. HeartEra also used smartphone sensors to monitor the body, this time giving a reading of heartbeat patterns when the user lies down and places the phone over his or her heart.
It was while Helmy was in Turkey with his family for his father’s sabbatical that he made the decision to continue working with the apps beyond the science fair. Father and son found the International Epilepsy Pipeline Conference, to take place in San Francisco in early June 2014. The conference included a “Shark Tank” competition, which would honor innovators in epilepsy product concepts with up to $200,000 in grant money.
“It was a surprise to us just to be chosen as a finalist,” Ahmed said. “They thought the idea was simple enough to understand and simple enough to implement. It was readily available on smartphones, you didn’t need any extra hardware.”
Helmy and his father then presented Seizario in front of a panel of judges, or “sharks”.
Although Helmy remembers the judges “didn’t even mention us when they were giving away their money that they had,” Seizario won the People’s Choice award – one of the largest monetary awards at the competition with a $75,000 prize.
“When my dad and I got the People’s Choice award [from the Epilepsy Foundation], it really showed that people wanted and needed the product we had to offer,” Helmy said. “I guess that was the biggest moment and realization point for me, that I could really take this to the next level and that this is getting serious.”
A couple of months later in September, the duo submitted HeartEra and Seizario to the Annual International Conference on Mobile Computing and Networking, known as ACM MobiCom and held in Maui, Hawaii. According to Ahmed, MobiCom is the premier conference in the field of mobile computing.
“I told him the competition is going to be very tough. You’re competing with Ph.D students and renowned professors from MIT and Berkeley, Chicago, all over the world,” Ahmed said. “And he said ‘You know what, let’s try. What do we have to lose?’”
Heartera went on to win first place in the mobile app competition and second place in the start-up pitch conference.
“We went there and people were just excited to see him,” Ahmed said. “I think it’s the first time that a student that was not a college student was participating.”
A few weeks later, and Helmy is back in the daily routine of class and after-school activities typical of a high school freshman. He said he has plans to keep his apps moving forward until they are on the market and available to be used by the public. He and his father plan to launch a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo in the next month to create a community of users for the apps and make improvements.
“I realize after winning all these awards that I still have a lot of work to do in order to make it into a product that will actually help people,” Helmy said.
One of the people who has assisted Helmy in testing his app as a product is Dr. Jean Cibula, neurologist and chief of the Epilepsy Division at the UF Department of Neurology. Helmy approached Cibula for assistance in getting the app tested on a real patient after the app won his school science fair.
Cibula said the app is a significant step in ensuring the safety of epilepsy patients and will help doctors to monitor the health of their patients.
“Currently, one of the biggest issues in treating folks is knowing how often people have seizures,” she said. “People can’t always remember when they’re having a seizure. This will not only log the seizure but send a notice to a family member or designated caregiver.”
Helmy hopes his apps will be available for download within the next six months. He and his father are working with cardiologists and neurologists like Cibula to continue refining the existing apps, and he wants to create new health apps when the time comes.
Biomedical engineer, computer scientist and doctor are all potential future career paths for Helmy. He credits his father for continuing to help him achieve his goal to develop technology that will improve patient’s lives.
“My dad has pretty much taught me everything I know and he helped me throughout the whole journey,” he said.
Cibula said she thinks the academic community in Gainesville encourages innovation among students like Helmy.
“It’s really inspiring,” she said. “I think that’s indicative of what kids are doing all over Gainesville. Kids are smart and creative and have this huge reservoir of resources that can be accessed.”